North·Analysis

In choosing whether to expel one of their own, N.W.T. MLAs face unprecedented decision

N.W.T. legislators face an unprecedented decision in whether to remove a fellow MLA from his election position, writes the CBC's Walter Strong.

Norn could be the first N.W.T. MLA to lose his seat at the hands of fellow members

MLA Steve Norn faces expulsion from the N.W.T. Legislative Assembly. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Legislators in the Northwest Territories face a historic moment — they must decide whether to expel one of their own. 

Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Steve Norn was the subject of a legislative inquiry into his actions earlier this year when he was alleged to have broken COVID-19 self-isolation protocols, and to have misled the public about it through statements to Yellowknife media.

The judicial inquiry found Norn's behaviour violated MLAs' code of conduct, and recommended that he be removed from office. This would trigger a by-election to find Norn's replacement. 

During a press conference last week, Norn's lawyer, Steven Cooper, argued that N.W.T. MLAs now face an unprecedented decision: they must vote on the standing of an elected member of the Legislative Assembly. 

And Cooper is right. Should they agree to expel Norn, he will be the first MLA in the Northwest Territories to lose his seat at the hands of fellow elected members.

Misbehaviour and its ramifications in the N.W.T.

Other MLAs have faced scrutiny for their behaviour, but none have had their seats vacated at the hands of fellow MLAs. Former premier Floyd Roland was the subject of a legislative inquiry into his affair with a staffer in 2009. The sole adjudicator found Roland to be in conflict of interest, and to have "failed to maintain public confidence in his integrity, objectivity and impartiality," but made no recommendations for MLAs to act on.

Former MLA and cabinet minister Henry Zoe was also convicted of sexual assault multiple times, and once while in office, but was never expelled from the assembly. He did resign.

Former Inuvik Twin Lakes MLA and cabinet minister Roger Allen was jailed for sexual assault against a staffer while on duty travel in 2004, and was under investigation for lying about where he lived to collect extra pay (saying he lived in a cabin outside Inuvik while actually living in Alberta), but he resigned his seat before any of this could affect his standing as an MLA.

More recently, former Deh Cho MLA Michael Nadli was convicted of assault. Nadli's incarceration led to his suspension as an MLA, but the Assembly was dissolved that year before his incarceration resulted in him losing his seat.

While MLAs have never fired one of their own in the N.W.T., it has happened in Nunavut, which, like the N.W.T., is governed by consensus government.

In 2015 Nunavut MLA Samuel Nuqingaq was expelled from the Nunavut Legislative Assembly, and his seat declared vacant, after members decided they could no longer tolerate his prolonged absences from the Assembly. What differentiates this case from Norn's is that Nuqingaq was expelled without a formal inquiry or recommendation from anyone outside the Nunavut Legislature.

Last week Norn said other MLAs had done worse things than him and not been expelled. Worse is a matter of judgment. Is sexual assault worse than Norn's behaviour, as described in the inquiry report? Perhaps MLAs will consider that this week. 

But whatever MLAs decide, they won't be basing it on the will of the people who voted for Norn.

No recall legislation in the N.W.T.

People and organizations have already spoken out in favour of or against Norn, and they will surely convey their feelings to the elected representatives who will now decide Norn's fate as an elected official, but this informal process is a far cry from electoral recall, where voters decide they have lost confidence in their MLA and push to have him or her removed.

B.C. has legislation in place that allows for the removal of an MLA based on the will of the MLA's electorate. It's an onerous system for those who want an MLA removed, but it has the undeniable merit of being driven by the same people the MLA counted on for election in the first place.

There is no recall legislation in the Northwest Territories, although MLAs have talked about it. Norn could resign, but nothing he has said suggests that's a consideration. 

Norn won 36 per cent of ballots cast in 2019 when he won his seat. That's 201 of 557 votes cast. His next nearest competitor for the seat took 128 votes, or 23 per cent of ballots cast. Does Norn still carry the favour of his electorate? There is no way to know without holding another election, but Norn may still lose his seat. 

And that is the crux of the difficult question N.W.T. MLAs now face. Do they take the results of an inquiry into a fellow MLA's behaviour as license to remove that duly elected official from office? Whatever they decide to do, the decision is, as Norn's lawyer emphasized, unprecedented in the N.W.T.

now